Australia is a rich country. It is one of the few to have avoided a recession. This has been the result partly of successful macroeconomic policies, but largely of the huge mining boom, with Australia exporting minerals to China and other fast growing Asian economies.
But has this growth brought happiness? Are Australians having to work harder and harder to pay for their high standard of living? Indeed, do higher incomes generally result in greater happiness? The following articles explore this issue, both in an Australian context and more broadly. They look at some recent evidence.
For example, in one study, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese university students were asked what they held to be most important for assessing the worth of their lives. The crucial finding was that although higher incomes may be a contributing factor to increased happiness and well-being, especially for poorer people, other factors are more important. These include developing fulfilling personal relationships, whether with partners, family members or friends; gaining knowledge and wisdom; having enjoyable hobbies; having financial security (as opposed to higher incomes); having a worthwhile career; living a moral life; helping other people.
The question then arises whether our economic systems and incentives are geared towards achieving these outcomes. Or are we encouraged to consume more and more and to seek higher and higher incomes to feed our addiction to consumption?
Is there an information problem here? Do many individuals perceive that money will buy them happiness, whereas, in reality, money can’t buy them love?
Australia: Where the good life comes at a price BBC News Magazine, Madeleine Morris (24/2/13)
Australia has the know-how to boost wellbeing Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade (8/9/12)
Money can’t buy you the good life Independent, Roger Dobson (24/2/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Yes, Money Does Buy Happiness: 6 Lessons from the Newest Research on Income and Well-Being The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (10/1/13)
The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/13)
Money buys happiness? I wouldn’t bank on it The Telegraph, Christopher Howse (6/2/13)
Who Says Wealth Doesn’t Buy Happiness? The Wealthy Do CNBC, Robert Frank (4/2/13)
More Proof That Money Can’t Buy Happiness Business Insider, Aimee Groth (28/1/13)
Money Changes Everything The New York Times, Adam Davidson (5/2/13)
Why are the Chinese so sad? Maclean’s (Canada), Mitch Moxley (4/2/13)
First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2/4/12)
World Happiness Report The Earth Institute, Columbia University, John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds.) (2/4/12)
Well-being evidence for policy: A review New Economics Foundation, Laura Stoll, Juliet Michaelson and Charles Seaford (3/4/12)
- Distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Is higher income a necessary or sufficient condition (or both or neither) for an increase in happiness? Does a person’s circumstances affect the answer to this question?
- Explain what is meant by ‘rational behaviour’ at the margin in the traditional economic sense?
- If a person always behaved rationally, would they be happier than if they did not? Explain.
- Explain how information asymmetry between the two or more parties involved in a transaction may make people worse off, rather than better off, even though they were behaving rationally.
- Explain what is meant by diminishing returns to income.
- Do richer countries get happier as they get richer?
- How would you set about measuring happiness?
- What do you understand by the term ‘hedonic elevation and decline’? Does this provide an accurate description of you own purchasing behaviour? If so, explain whether or not you would like to change this behaviour.
- When people make economic decisions, these are normally made with bounded rationality. How may this affect the desirability of the outcomes of the decisions?
- In explaining bankers’ behaviour, Christopher Howse (author of the second Telegraph article above) states: ‘It’s the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself. When I say “keeps them happy” I mean “feeds their addiction”. It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a little rational animal on the bare surface of the Earth lost in space.’ Do you agree? Explain why or why not.
- When people are addicted to something, would doing more of it be classed as irrational? Explain.
- Why are the Chinese so sad?
A recent article on this blog discussed the likelihood that we will soon move to a cashless society. It is therefore interesting to consider the implications that this might have for consumer behaviour. We might expect the form of payment to make no difference to a rational consumer. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that this is not the case.
One reason why people appear to spend more freely on credit cards is payment decoupling – you get utility from the item purchased before you pay the cost. However, more recent evidence suggests that this is not the only relevant factor. It appears that the degree of transparency of the payment method also has an effect. Psychologists quoted in the above article conclude from their experimental evidence that:
Payment modes differ in the transparency with which individuals can feel the outflow of money. ….with cash being the most transparent payment mode.
This effect also appears to make people spend cash less freely.
The author of the above article spent some time experimenting with trying to make all his purchases using cash. He found that by doing so, he was able to reduce his spending by about 10%. However, this seems likely to become harder to do in the future and, as the article concludes, it is already difficult to purchase some items with cash.
Why does foreign money seem like play money? Science Codex (04/06/07)
- What type of products is it already difficult to purchase with cash?
- How did the psychologists test the transparency of payment methods?
- Do you think the consumer behaviour described above is likely to persist in the long-run?
- Might firms be able to take advantage of the consumers behave described above?
- Do you think the transparency of foreign currencies is the main reason why people spend more when they are abroad?
A key economic principle is that rational decision making requires thinking at the margin. This involves a comparison of the additional (or marginal) benefits and costs of an activity.
An example of such rational behaviour would be deciding to drink one more beer or spending one more hour studying only if the additional benefits were greater than the additional costs. The optimum is where marginal benefit equals marginal cost.
And this applies to firms too. A firm maximises its profits by producing the output at which marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost.
However, a recent book by the American business guru Clayton Christensen argues that thinking in this way can be a problem. A recent article in the Guardian describes a story he tells of the time he refused to play for his university basketball team in a national final which took place on a Sunday and therefore conflicted with his religious beliefs. His decision involved sticking to his principles rather than thinking at the margin. For him, whilst the marginal cost of sacrificing these principles just once may well have been small compared to the resulting benefits, the eventual cost would be much higher.
Christensen also suggests that similar arguments can apply to firm decision making. The above article provides an example he uses of decisions made by executives at the Blockbuster video chain. When smaller rivals started offering movies by mail, Blockbuster instead continued to invest in its existing video store business model. This eventually proved disastrous for the company. The explanation given for this is that building on previous investments made more sense than setting up a mail-order arm which would cannibalise their existing business. On the other hand, an alternative explanation may be that executives at Blockbuster were irrationally allowing sunk costs to affect their decision making.
Clayton Christensen’s “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Harvard Business School, Clayton Christensen (9/5/12)
Clay Christensen’s life lessons BloombergBusinessweek, Bradford Wieners (3/5/12)
Bust Blockbuster goes on the block Guardian, Ben Child (4/4/11)
- Can you think of a situation where you have decided to stick to your principles rather than think at the margin?
- Why does a firm maximise profit by producing the output at which marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost?
- What do you think are the main costs of setting up a mail-order business?
- Are these costs mainly fixed or variable costs?
- Why is it irrational to take sunk costs into account when making a decision?
- Can you think of a situation where you have been influenced by sunk costs?
In 2009, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness was published. This book by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein examines how people are influenced to make decisions or change behaviour.
According to Thaler and Sunstein, people can be ‘nudged’ to change their behaviour. For example, healthy food can be placed in a prominent position in a supermarket or healthy snacks at the checkout. Often it is the junk foods that are displayed prominently and unhealthy, but tasty, snacks are found by the checkout. If fashion houses ceased to use ultra thin models, it could reduce the incentive for many girls to under-eat. If kids at school are given stars or smiley faces for turning off lights or picking up litter, they might be more inclined to do so.
The UK government has been investigating the use of ‘nudges’ as a way of changing behaviour, and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has been considering the question. It has just published its report, Behaviour Change. The summary of the report states that:
The currently influential book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocates a range of non-regulatory interventions that seek to influence behaviour by altering the context or environment in which people choose, and seek to influence behaviour in ways which people often do not notice. This approach differs from more traditional government attempts to change behaviour, which have either used regulatory interventions or relied on overt persuasion.
The current Government have taken a considerable interest in the use of “nudge interventions”. Consequently, one aim of this inquiry was to assess the evidence-base for the effectiveness of “nudges”. However, we also examined evidence for the effectiveness of other types of policy intervention, regulatory and non-regulatory, and asked whether the Government make good use of the full range of available evidence when seeking to change behaviour.
The report finds that nudges
… used in isolation will often not be effective in changing the behaviour of the population. Instead, a whole range of measures – including some regulatory measures – will be needed to change behaviour in a way that will make a real difference to society’s biggest problems.
So is there, nevertheless, a role for nudges in changing behaviour – albeit alongside other measures? Read the report and the articles below to find out!
Lords report calls for regulation over persuasion to improve public health Wales Online, David Williamson (19/7/11)
Government’s ‘nudge’ approach to health is not enough, according to House of Lords and Work Foundation HR Magazine, David Woods (20/7/11)
How can I tell if I’ve been nudged Independent, Natalie Haynes (20/7/11)
Healthier behaviour plans are nudge in the wrong direction, say peers Guardian, Sarah Boseley (19/7/11)
‘Nudge’ is not enough, it’s true. But we already knew that Guardian, Jonathan Rowson (19/7/11)
Nudge not enough to change lifestyles – peers BBC News, Nick Triggle (19/7/11)
Why a nudge is not enough to change behaviour BBC News, Baroness Julia Neuberger (19/7/11)
House of Lords findings: why green Nudges are not enough The Green Living Blog, Baroness Julia Neuberger (19/7/11)
Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee publish report on Behaviour Change YouTube, Baroness Julia Neuberger (14/7/11)
Press Release Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (19/7/11)
Behaviour Change Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (online version) (19/7/11)
Behaviour Change Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (PDF version) (19/7/11)
- When may a nudge (a) be enough, (b) not be enough to change behaviour?
- What instruments does the government have to change behaviour?
- Distinguish between a ‘technical’ and an ‘adaptive’ solution to changing behaviour. Give examples.
- Why might adaptive solutions provide more of a challenge to policymakers than technical solutions.
- Can a nudge ever be transformative?
Economics is about choice – and choices occur in all parts of our lives. One area is personal relationships. Are we making the best of our relationships with family, friends and sexual partners? Increasingly economists are examining human behaviour in such contexts and asking what factors determine our decisions and whether such decisions are rational.
A recent book looks at the economics of marriage and goes under the title of ‘Spousonomics‘. Its authors, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, use economics “to master love, marriage and dirty dishes”. As they say:
Every marriage is its own little economy, a business of two with a finite number of resources that need to be allocated efficiently.
They look at ways in which such resources can be allocated efficiently. They also look at apparently irrational behaviour and seek to explain it in terms of various ‘failures’ (akin to market failures). They also examine how these failures can be rectified to improve relationships.
So is this economics stepping on the toes of relationship counsellors and psychologists? Or is this the legitimate domain of economists seeking to understand how to optimise in the context of scarce resources – including time and patience?
Spousonomics gets to heart of the matter Belfast Telegraph (19/1/11)
Run your marriage with ‘Spousonomics’: A new book says applying economic rules with transform your relationship Mail Online, Lydia Slater (31/1/11)
Spousonomics: How Economics Can Help Figure Out Your Marriage Book Beast (31/1/11)
Spousonomics Lesson #1: Loss Aversion YouTube (15/1/11)
Economist’s Explanation For Why Getting Married Isn’t Rational Huffington Post, Dan Ariely (15/1/11)
How Economics Saved My Marriage Newsweek, Paula Szuchman (30/1/11)
Want your marriage to profit? New York Post, Sara Stewart (29/1/11)
Spousonomics: blog, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson
- How would you define ‘rational behaviour’ in a personal relationship?
- Why may marriage be a better deal generally for men than for women?
- Give some examples of asymmetry of information in marriage and why this may lead to bad decision making?
- Give some examples of risk averse and risk loving behaviour in personal relationships?
- Why are many actions in marriage apparently irrational? Could such actions be explained if the concept of ‘irrationality’ is redefined?
- Why may a simple demand curve help to explain why sexual relationships tend to wane in many marriages?
- Why does moral hazard occur in marriage? Does a combination or moral hazard and asymmetry of information help to explain divorce?
- Should marriage guidance counsellors study economics?!